It was our initial sticker shock over venues that motivated and spawned my bartering and this, The Bartering Bride blog. It seemed impossible -- upon seeing that the food, drinks and rental of various venues cost our entire budget -- to even have a wedding. We are self-funding for the most part, save some much appreciated, generous help from my mom, and we were determined then, and remain so now, not to burden ourselves with loads of debt for one day's material details.

Those who are my friends on Facebook know this, but this is the question that started it all. I spent 30 consecutive days asking wedding-related question after wedding-related question because I was determined, for Steven and me and our guests, to learn as much as I could before making decisions about things I've never purchased before and likely won't again for some time -- linens, flowers, entertainment, etc.

Generic online budgets too often assign a blanket percentage that people should spend: say, 10% on the gown, 10% on flowers, 30% on food. But not everything is as important to everyone, and one's budget should follow one's priorities. So, if your fiancé and you love karaoke, maybe spending $250 (or bartering) to have it on your big day is well worth it to you. (Like us!) If not, maybe you'd spend $250 on something else, such as a photo booth or chocolate fountain.

If you know the theme you want, consider doing what we did. We chose an inexpensive venue that fits the rustic theme we were after, which minimizes how much decoration we have to add, which saves money. See what I mean?
The jars, tree trunk slabs and burlap fabric are ours, which brings up a cost consideration to be had when renting venues: Some include everything -- chairs, linens and centerpieces, in-house caterer and baker, uplighting and sound system. Everything.

Others like ours leave a lot to be quarterbacked by the bride and groom. Our venue has chairs and tables, but has left the responsibility for centerpieces, flowers and linens, uplighting and on-site catering, to us. My advice: Pick a venue such as this if you have the time. It can take a while to find and/or make everything you need.

According to my Facebook friends, here are questions to ask of a venue, or ways to find the right one:
  • Find a place that allows you to BYOB. Then, when you do go to buy the alcohol for your party, find a distributor that will sell to you "on commission." That's code for "will accept back any cases of beer and wine that are unopened." That way, if you buy too much, you can return some if you desire.
  • If there's a catering company you really like, ask them for venues they recommend.
  • Ask about climate control. Some of my friends said that neglecting to ask about air conditioning made for sweaty conditions in hot churches and venues. It's also not a bad idea to ask when your venue/church will turn the air on. 
  • University banquet halls apparently will discount prices for alumni.
  • Ask any venue whether security fees will be incurred if you serve alcohol, or for other reasons.
  • Don't forget that pavilions and gazebos at local parks often cost a nominal fee or nothing. Make sure, though, that you reserve the space for your party. Contacting the local parks and recreation department is a good first step.
  • A sorority sister of mine recommended considering the aisle width: When she walked the aisle with her parents, they were stepping on her dress because it was so narrow.
  • It's personal preference, of course, but we also chose a venue where we could host both our ceremony and reception to keep navigation simple for our many out-of-town guests.
 
 
As I mentioned in the blog I wrote about our caterer, choosing the company that would cook and serve our wedding meal was one of the more time-intensive processes we've encountered in the planning process. The lessons we've learned?

  • Most caterers will offer you a taste test. Take it. 
  • Most don't offer a run-through of their Health Department records. Look them up at your county office. See whether they have violations (involving such issues as food temperature, hand-washing practices and code compliance). Hire those that do not have serious, repeated violations. Or any, lol.
  • Drill down to really understand what you'll be charged. Many caterers will charge you for the food, drink service, the manpower for their station cooks (if you do stations) and other personnel, cake-cutting services, china and flatware, and more. Ask for a price quote, delineating every charge, in writing.
  • If you care like I do, ask about how many weddings they serve in any given year and how long they've been in business.
  • Finally, LISTEN. If a caterer tells you that something will work well or won't, take their word for it. Your best ideas (like our first desire for a pasta station) will only be the best when executed right, and if a caterer advises against something, it's probably best to give their opinion due consideration. They've been there, done that.

Enough about our own findings. Here's what my Facebook friends advised when it comes to deciding what you'll serve for your big event:

Buffet service, many said, is fine and dandy, but has a more sophisticated feel when servers actually serve guests. Another urged us to choose foods that are an extension of us. She wrote: 

"I think a lot of people get hung up on pleasing the guests rather than making the wedding an extension of themselves. It's the personal touches about you both that tell your story that people will remember and enjoy the most. They are there to celebrate you!"

We didn't consciously do this, but it's safe to say that a certain dish involving bacon reflects my groom, and another dish involving capers (those scrumptious little things!) reflects my love of all foods Mediterranean. Above all else, though, Steven's and my decision to serve more country-style entrees rather than pricier, elegant dishes is so us. 

Others said they like family-style service (where platters of each dish are brought to the table for your guests to serve themselves). We were going to do this until our caterer pointed out that serving family-style food, only to force our guests to get up to enjoy the mashed potato topping bar ... didn't make much sense. Remember? Listen to your vendors.

I feel this goes without saying, but many of my Facebook friends encouraged brides and grooms to serve options for vegetarians and vegans, if possible. Steven and I included in our RSVP card a way for people to tell us what they will not (or cannot) eat. See?
As you can see, we chose to have a little fun with something that traditionally asks only for names and meal selection. :]

Back to the topic at hand: Others also suggested offering more dessert than just wedding cake. We're not really doing that (it's simply not in the budget), but I think we're achieving quite a bit of variety by offering guests six varieties of mini cupcakes whipped up by one mega-talented baker.

Other ideas that people offered:

  • Let your date dictate the menu. Getting married on or near Fourth of July? Offer foods that typically would be served at such outings. 
  • Offer stations (so long as your caterer is confident it won't create long waits!) that let people handpick the tacos and plates of pasta they really want.
  • Serve late-night food for those guests of yours who dance the night away with you. We are hoping to order pizza.
  • Even if something's not on the menu, ask about it if you want it. One of our dishes is not one on our caterer's given wedding selections menu, but still, they offer it, make it homemade and will be serving it to our guests. We'd never have known that if we hadn't asked.
  • Finally, one person recommended serving appetizers to your guests so they have something to munch on during the time between the ceremony and the reception's official start. We're doing this, but keeping it simple for budget reasons but also because a few caterers told me that they see it happen too often that people fill up on appetizers only to enjoy the meal less.
  • We met with our DJ on Thursday night for our pre-wedding planning meeting, and while there, the husband and wife team urged us to actually EAT at our wedding. In fact, they said they'd make sure it happens. As a woman who likes food, I appreciate how adamantly they feel about this!

What's the best wedding food you've ever had?
 
 
Thus far, in our year of wedding planning, I'd say we've done pretty well in keeping wasteful spending to a minimum. In fact, with the exception of a blue sweater I bought for our engagement shoot that I didn't end up wearing more than twice, I'm not sure we have wasted money. 

People who've been there, done that, certainly had viewpoints on which wedding expenditures are a waste. Favors were cited most often. And one friend replied: "Speaking as a server, imprinted cocktail napkins, matches, etc. Anything that gets thrown out anyway. And really think about whether people will actually take your favor home and do something with it. When the favors are flimsy, people leave them and we end up throwing them out at the end of the night."

The only wedding favors I still have serve as jewelry storage on my dresser, so I guess they're serving a purpose. But, I hope no one paid an arm and a leg for them.

The husband-to-be and I decided early on not to do favors. In lieu of favors, and right along the lines of others' suggestions, we will donate to the Cleveland Animal Protective League. It would have been enough that we're both animal lovers. But, not long after Steven moved in with me, we adopted this ridiculously sweet cat -- whom we renamed Cora -- from the organization:
Can you stand it?! She even fetches her toys. Like a dog.

Our thinking: If we can help ensure that other animals are cared for until they find their forever homes, it's a much better expenditure than favors.

And, she's not the only adorable animal inspiring this donation. This is Charlie, whom I adopted five years ago from a Pennsylvania farmhouse. When it's cold outside and the radiators are hissing, we know where to find him, lol.
Back to the topic at hand: Where else have others realized that a wedding expenditure was a waste of money? One woman said hiring a limo (because she just found it to be unnecessary), and another journalist friend of mine called the sit-down dinner a waste.

It surprised me how many people chimed in to say they agreed. Here I was, thinking we'd be lepers if we dared have buffet dinner service, and here they were, saying nix dinner altogether. They said this namely based on what they say their friends' preferences are (to get up and mingle, rather than wait for dinner to be served) and they said this because from their perspective, the typical rubber chicken, vegetable and starch isn't memorable and isn't worth the price you pay.


After a lot of thought and deliberation, and a big change in our plans, Steven and I have chosen our caterer and decided our menu. More about that on the blog soon.

I've learned that a lot of wedding planning follows the old adage, "to each his own." If you don't want to serve dinner, don't, but make sure you say so in your invitations, my peanut gallery advised. Guests who show up hungry for dinner only to find finger foods may end up hungry later, and leave earlier. (To that point, you also should include it in your invites if your event is adults-only and if it's outside so guests can plan accordingly, I'm told.)

Another Facebook friend of mine said that spending a lot on invitations doesn't make sense to her because most will throw them away. I've been lucky to have a sister who's a designer who crafted my invitations as her gift to us, and I've ordered them on Vistaprint using Groupons. Keep your eyes out: Vistaprint Groupons are offered fairly frequently.

Other former brides also noted that they purchased their gowns at David's Bridal rather than potentially spending more at private boutiques, and a few urged me not to overspend on a veil because a person can make one pretty cheaply or borrow one. One man also suggested we make our own decorations (in the works!) and host our ceremony and reception at one venue (presumably because it saves on transportation and because it's more convenient for guests). We're doing that, too.

One of my favorite responses was this one, from a former colleague of mine who actually threw a surprise wedding when she married: "The good news is that guests really appreciate anything that makes the wedding unique."

What was the most unique touch to a wedding you've ever seen?
 
 
If I had to summarize the 44 responses to this question in one sentence, I would do it this way: Do not skimp on your big day's photography. Just. Don't. Do. It.

Many of the people who gave an opinion either regretted not spending more money themselves, or knew someone who did. "You can skimp on everything else, but those pictures are forever," one of my friends wrote. Another noted she hadn't even ordered digital proofs because she's so disgusted by the work her photographer delivered. (Word to the wise: Negotiate, or try to negotiate, so that you receive a disk of digital images and have the right to print the images.)

Photography is one of the biggest reasons I turned to bartering. I knew I couldn't bear to not have gorgeous, candid images of our day (I've worked for years with fabulous photojournalists, so I know how striking photography can be when done well), but I suffered from some serious sticker shock. Then, I met Ken Cavanaugh at Cavanaugh Photography, who did want to barter, and my mind was set at ease. We would have a professional behind the lens, and I would work to earn it.

Others, in responding to this day's question, said they wished they'd hired a videographer, and one said she would hire a DJ if she could have a do-over.

I liked this advice: Spend more on what's more important to you. If you dig live music, this person wrote, hire a band. If you're particular about food, splurge a little on a top-notch caterer. For one former bride, having a string quartet was worth the extra $400, while spending more to have live flowers simply was not. 

One former groom said he regretted pinching pennies on tuxedos because the shop they used did an awful job tailoring and actually delivered some of the tuxes to the wrong places.

Here's what I've learned generally in my own wedding planning: You get what you pay for, in most cases. If you want a fantastic photographer, said fantastic photographer will cost more. If you want a newspaper journalist to write your love story, it will cost more than hiring your friend to do it for you (shameless plug, I know). The husband-to-be and I are paying more than we initially expected for our caterer, and I'm glad. They serve a tasty chicken piccata, mashed potatoes made from scratch and a lot of other delicious food, and they're a third-generation company -- tried and true.

Another of my Facebook friends said her husband and she ran out of booze, which reminds me to share with you what I've learned: You can find distributors who will sell alcohol on commission. That means that if Steven and I buy more alcohol than our guests end up consuming, and if any cases and bottles are unopened, the distributor will take the alcohol back and refund us that money. When it comes to purchasing for our party, we'd rather over-purchase, and we're glad to know that we can potentially return some of it.

One woman said she was sorry that she skimped on her wedding shoes and doesn't like any of the photographs that show those shoes. 

Of course, nothing is all about price. A former editor of mine urged that simply spending more dough does not ensure a great vendor or responsive service. He suggested asking oneself, "Did they capture each couple's story, or take cliché images?" when vetting photographers, and considering how a DJ plans to keep your party lively.

When it comes to our pending nuptials, we've definitely spent more (via my bartering) to ensure we have karaoke and a very competent DJ and emcee. It's important to us to have a party that gets people up and dancing, and keeps them up and dancing, and I hear from Something New Entertainment's former clients that they deliver. 

Finally, one former bride said she wished she'd spent more on linens because she saw another wedding with pricier linens, and they did make a "tremendous" difference in the overall feel of the room. Speaking of linens, we've decided to buy ours instead of renting them. Anyone know a quality site that sells them?
 
 
Three words came up most frequently when I asked this question on my Facebook page: Three. Ring. Binder.

Many of the people who responded to this post said they kept organized by filling a binder with printed materials about vendors and services, plus signed contracts. One said she organized the binder with tabs labeled for each of the major vendors one can expect to hire.

I haven't kept a binder. I've stuffed a bright green folder with contracts and to-do lists that I've ripped out of magazines. I also make a copy of every check we write to book a vendor so I have record of it. I also never go to an appointment without my copy of Today's Bride because the very back of the pub provides lists of questions to ask any given vendor.

As for finding vendors in your price range, many photographers share their rates upfront, one recent bride said, and other vendors will provide quotes if you ask. She recommended -- and I can speak from experience that this is important to ensure you receive an accurate quote -- that brides and grooms share their event's approximate number of guests, location, time and date when asking.

A sorority sister of mine also noted that she's found vendors through bridal shows. As has happened a few times, it's surprising how often I re-read the replies to these questions only to find that they have a timely relevance to my current planning. I just booked a hairdresser and makeup artist I met at the Boutique Bridal Bazaar, where my sister and I showcased our own company, Story of Your Life. (*Like* us, please!)

A few people also noted that they used Excel to do their budgeting. I personally have a piece of paper with three columns: 1) the service being paid for, 2) the amount we've already paid and 3) the amount we have yet to pay. Either, I'm sure, works. It's staying organized that's important.

Finally, one recent groom (yes, sometimes grooms answered these!) recommended delegating projects you can to others. I haven't done this much, but I am working with two wedding planners to whom I will delegate a most important role: coordinating the biggest day of our lives.